Comfort, comfort my people, says your God..
Shout for joy, O heavens; rejoice, O earth; burst into song, O mountains! for the Lord comforts his people and will have compassion on his afflicted ones.
Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem.
(Isaiah 40 v 1;49 v 13;52 v 9)
This Christmas season has brought with it many reasons to weep, to despair of peace and hope in this land, let alone the wide world where so many suffer in ways that I cannot bear to imagine. If all I have to celebrate is the birth of a baby, time with family and a respite from the routine of work, then what defence do I have against the dark? If my celebrations depend upon my ability to shut out reality for a few hours or days, and to pretend that life is wonderful; what hope do I have to offer the world, or to give me a foundation for the new year ?
In the last two years, I have become an orphan, and my parent’s church where I was born and raised in faith has split apart, so that although I have not been a regular part of that ‘family’ for a long time, I feel that I am additionally bereaved. Major foundations of my world are gone, and the popular myth of Christmas gives me no consolation, because it centres on recreating family, on gathering all our significant people around us, and celebrating them.
What of those with no family? or those who for various reasons are widely separated from their loved ones? What about the terminally ill, those facing war and homelessness, those under persecution, the unemployed and the abused? I find it quite heart-breaking to see the effort folk will go to in finding some way to celebrate at Christmas, when they are building on merely human foundations. Yes, of course it is good to appreciate our families and friends, to take time to enjoy the many good things we have and to build loving relationships. But…is there not more?
I was asked recently if I was getting excited about Christmas, and had to answer honestly that I was not. But I am deep down glad about Christmas, more glad with every year that passes, and every new experience of living in an imperfect world. I can be glad because the bible tells me that something real happened at Christmas time, that eternity exploded into this world of ours, and that truly good news was broadcast to the unlikeliest of heralds. That first Christmas was so much more than the birth of a boy to a carpenter and his wife, it was the enfolding of God in embryo and his delivery into the messy, broken, beautiful world where we need him so desperately.
The words at the top of this article come from Isaiah’s prophecies, and I chose them because each one uses the word ‘comfort’, with its sense of strengthening, consoling and supporting all at once. This is what I need when I look around me, to be strengthened for loving and giving, for helping others in their need, and thus in turn showing God’s loving face to his needy world. I need to be consoled for my human losses, and supported in finding new ways to live without these significant people in my life. And this is what God wants to do; all these prophetic words are associated with the coming of the promised one, God’s rescue plan for his broken world! So that in the coming of Jesus, I see the comforter arriving, the one who will completely understand my pain and need because he will feel it too in his humanity.
It is here that I find reason to rejoice at Christmas time, and each year more deeply. The best carols we sing are meditations on the reality which lies behind the story of shepherds and journeys, angels and stars – of light coming into the world, of God taking human form, of a journey of redemption and salvation now fully begun which can transform lives. This is a foundation on which to build into the new year, whatever it may bring. God is with us, and things will never be the same again.
On Christmas night all Christians sing, to hear the news the angels bring (x2) News of great joy, news of great mirth, news of our merciful King’s birth.
Then why should men on earth be so sad, since our Redeemer made us glad ?(x2) When from our sin he set us free, all for to gain our liberty!
When sin departs before his grace, then life and health come in its place (x2), Angels and men with joy may sing, all for to see the newborn King.
All out of darkness we have light, which made the angels sing this night (x2),Glory to God and peace to men, now and for evermore, Amen!
(the Sussex carol, Traditional)